by Katharine Marais
photo by Jenna Putnam courtesy of Marlon Rabenreither
th_Eroses is featuring Gold Star with a page in our art celebration series, because we are stoked on Gold Star’s charisma, coolness, transparency, goldenness, and the rockiness of their rock.
the rolling star, transparent & outdoors
Marlon has a great voice- smooth, bassy, confident- like a red giant star, an ember, fluming and rolling in orbit seeping with a gentle aura of deep-spectrum energies. I would say the vibe is atomic, but that sounds so plugged in- maybe something more like ruby-red solar haze, convective in the concrete-and-steel canyon walls of DTLA and east side highways. The slow pace of the album, disjointed from its hyper-digital-urban LA setting, gives both Gold Star and Uppers and Downers a surreal quality.
The sound lacks the trappings of interiority- like decorativity, coldness, softness. It feels very outdoor, but without neon even, and without digital speed. It’s the pace of walking on concrete in the sun in heavy boots, smoothed out a little with a smoky eeriness, kicked up a little like a shot of Jack Daniel’s.
if people get uptight at me
/ I take my beat up boots and live on the run.
It’s free of the trappings of fakeness- of posturing or hiding behind style. It has the transparency of someone whose life is publicly visible without being staged, whose private sorrows are laid out for the audience to consume like a smorgasbord. At times, this ontological reality feels very dark and unsettling for me.
Even the music video for Get it Together (C’mon) is very much just like driving around, and in fact, pretending to be driving around, and is very much okay with that. I feel that this embrace of transparency and the public projection of his everyday reality is at the essence of Gold Star’s coolness, but the emotional transparency is also what gives the album such a painfully despondent edge.
theroses: How did you end up in LA?
MR: My parents moved to Los Angeles when I was a kid, I’ve moved around a bit but have always ended up back in Los Angeles. It’s a very interesting city.
theroses: How did you end up playing rock music, and what stokes creative energies for you now?
MR: Rock And Roll has always had a magnetic draw for me. I can’t explain it really..
being an outsider
The album touches on the idea of being literally outside, and being an outsider.
theroses: How do you feel about technology and accelerationism? (Like basically the more technology we have the faster everything moves, from photography to the BPM of techno music compared to rock, to the automobile compared to the pedestrian). Do you have an opinionated stance on this issue? Your music is comparatively slow, and throughout the album you depict yourself as a pedestrian in literally heavy boots, which gives the album a stony feeling.
MR: Technology has the power to be extremely liberating, we are currently grappling with how to deal with this acceleration. I trust that we will figure it out before we lose ourselves completely to our phones and our social media personas. I often feel like I am being left behind by a rapidly accelerating and anxious world.
Keira mentioned that the drums are very forward / hot on the album. The percussiveness gives it a boots-thudding, kind of boulder-rolling pace. The transparent outsider is a role usually occupied by the prideful outcast, the solitary artist, or the fashionably homeless. Somebody who’s on the edge, highly visible and beautiful. Marlon seems uniquely committed to his status an outsider, but it’s slightly unclear as to to whether that’s a chosen mantle or an ordained role.
I’ve been kickin tires and I’m kickin the junk
and man I do it better than you
I acknowledge that the line is very funny. However, it also concerns me.
Sylvie said that
/ she don't understand
/ man its making her sad
/ why a good kid
/ with such a bright mind
/ would want to live like that
theroses: Are you satisfied with the conditions of your existence and / or society generally? Could you explain why or why not?
MR: I think we are living a in strange and tumultuous time. I tend toward optimism, and would like to believe society’s arc is trending towards a more just and peaceful future. I’m not sure we should ever be satisfied with our accomplishments, creatively or otherwise.. it’s probably always wiser to strive for better.
theroses: If you could change anything about the world, what would it be?
MR: Minimizing greed and apathy would be a start.
theroses: What do you foresee yourself doing in ten years?
MR: Hopefully following the same road I’m on now. I’m blessed to be able to write and perform music.
complexity, & are Gold Star’s lyrics poetry
I like the album, there are also times when I’m somewhat frustrated with the album for not progressing to more subtle and complex poetry and self-awareness. I like the song Get it Together, but at times the lyrics aren’t deeply literary or movingly emotional. The album is cool. At times it's heart-wrenching (/ do you really know what it’s like to be sad? to hate every single thing that you have?), but there are (some) moments when it really doesn’t feel like poetic rapture, or a pursuit of literary & musical art. I mean yeah, maybe I have high standards for rock music, but that’s because I love it and it means so much to me, and I wouldn’t even be writing this if I didn’t think that Gold Star is completely crucial- crucial to what LA is, to what rock music is now, to everyone’s lives who listen to their albums.
lifestyle & values choices
To keep rolling on this idea of values, or the pursuit of some specific arc of development… not to delve into systemic inequalities and systemic repression, but I do feel that talented outsiders are often victims of oppression in some way or another. “The cracks” that some fall through while random others are elevated may have failed them at some point. So on some level I’m wondering why Marlon is getting high on the east side and kicking tires instead of reading books or something but also I guess that’s also partially a values choice, if we can assume that his attitudes towards money are representative of an attitude toward societal conceptions of ‘value’ generally:
I don’t have much use for the money
/ but I’d really love to throw it away
and most zen people would argue that kicking tires is a form of experiential meditation from which as much, if not significantly more, can be learned that from reading a book about another person’s experience. But even the use of the word skull instead of mind (words “running through my skull”) pains me to hear, because it aches of a brutality, self-effacement, and emptiness- qualities that I feel are problematic in the LA punk scene at least, but which I would hope haven’t penetrated the more beautiful world of LA rock where artistry still blossoms. Where is dreaming? A skull is an empty rock. The mind is where dreaming, metaphor, feeling live.
some notes on zen and the everyday
Anyway, to go back to satori recognition… recently I’ve been thinking that if you could look at like some hideous advertising symbol like a neon green squiggle with maybe a cartoon dinosaur-alien with bug-eyes, and tack it onto a visually soothing and expansive abstraction, and genuinely not feel pain from the painted surface’s visual 'mar', you would have achieved a satori recognition. Which is one reason I’m not sure if zen as a whole paradigm is even a good idea.
Likewise, John Cage, Rauschenberg, and Yvonne Rainer thought that if you could look at a cashier’s wrist flick or a toddler’s first steps and see the same sacred grandeur in that motion that you do in the most baroque choreography of the Mariinsky ballerinas, or if you could look at a white-washed ply-board and read into it the same symphonic serenity of Saint Saen’s Le Cygne, or hear in silence All Beauty, you would have achieved satori recognition. In Marlon’s art, there is, I feel, an extraordinarily true seamlessness between his life and his art. It’s life on camera; it’s conversation on tape. It’s really his personal charisma that elevates the quotidian beyond documentary to a state of golden, defiant truth. One aspect of being a great artist is creating atmosphere, which Marlon does well.
Half the Time; angst about the economic structure of America
Half the Time vocalizes a very relatable pathos toward the entire condition of existence and distaste for basically all the fruits of ‘success’, coupled with a sort of ambivalent acceptance that that is reality.
Why does it have to be that way? A lot of options in life are very unfulfilling- an assembly line to crank out more blue-suited producer-consumers who are offered a pre-fabricated set of rewards designed to appeal to the basest and dullest facets of human desire, at the numbing expense of the mind and spirit. It’s been a centuries-long process to optimize the human mind for resource extraction- going as far back as when missionaries would go into new places and forcibly ‘convert’ all the natives to a lifestyle and belief system that would make everyone better at resource extraction.
Yeah, if everybody lay down on the curb and took the day to just *fucking cry* or kick rocks around, the economy would literally grind to a halt and the GDP would crash. People would die on gurneys and plenty would go hungry. Doing nothing is a uniquely pathetic form of rebellion, but I can’t say that I’ve never been there, or even that I wholesale condemn it, on an individual basis, for artists, at certain points in the time-space of their creative growth & path toward whatever it is that they are personally seeking, honestly.
It’s just that society slams a lot of doors closed for real artists, and the doors that are left open just don’t look that great. It leaves young people in the street. I feel it’s a major problem.
Baby Face; simplicity of language
Another quality I find very surreal about Marlon’s public presence and musical ouevre is the mash-up of a very emotionally complex and at times mature attitude and way of being, coupled with a sort of childishness in his manner of self-presentation, and childishness in the simplicity of his statements. It takes a lot of mental and spiritual capacity to speak great things, profound things, moving things, in simple words. But there’s also a deep sadness in choosing not to say more. There’s a silence to real emotion, that’s too significant to whittle down into symbols like words or language- but it rings out in the instrumentals, in the hollow grandness of Marlon’s voice, seeps out like slow tears in the spaces in between.
Keira also notes that the new record has “different thematic content from most of their earlier work. The older songs seem to focus specifically on particular relationships and people, whereas I might argue that the newer music seems more “turned inward” rather than “outward.” It’s as if the record is focused on self-cultivation and reflection.” This quality is especially apparent on the track Chinatown:
Chinatown; a great song with a yin yang chorus
The track opens with a sweet, reeling, kind of folkish and squeaking guitar harmony, then blossoms into a yin / yang chorus:
I want to leave my life here completely /
I’ll be around
yin: the passive, terrestrial, dark forces of the Universe, characterized by the night and the cold.
yang: the active, celestial, light forces of the Universe, characterized by the day and by warmth.
The contrast captures immediately both the simultaneous rapture and sorrow of a certain quixotic mood, the image of the yin yang that is so prevalent in actual Chinatown, and the central concept of the album- Uppers and Downers.
theroses: You talk some about prayer on the album. How do you feel about the life of the spirit in relation to the life of the material body? Would you like to say anything about religion or faith, whether personally or as a facet of contemporary life for an artist?
MR: I don’t pretend to know anything about these things but music is electric and spiritual. It’s all connected somehow.
Chinatown reminds me of Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I May See. I’ve listened to that album a lot, and sometimes really need it (despite its yin depths of sadness and near-abject despondency, it articulates a yang counterpoint of deep friendship and love of life), - actually a lot in Chinatown in the evenings, walking back late from the Echo Park, meditating on the bonsai trees in the street stands, feeling life and the motion of the city moving by me, not really clutching at them.
I think Gold Star’s Chinatown is one of the best tracks on Uppers and Downers. It captures the quixotic feeling of wandering that defines life for people who look for solace in a city, or who don’t live by a traditional clock. Time-space expands in the night, creating space for emotion- a facet of Being quashed by the capitalists, ranging from Ford to Freud to Jobs. Recently I’ve been thinking about division of labor, and wondering what the point is of being an artist or writer, or what differentiates me from being just an underemployed person who maintains access to a computer and wifi.
Wondering what it means to be the artist within the microeconomy of a given community.
Obviously that’s a discussion that could last a while, but one thing we’re sort of ‘allowed’ to do is be free to feel real emotion, and not become machines in service to the psychoanalytic endeavor I mentioned above with the missionaries, psychoanalysts, and resource-extraction, which was essentially people having to streamline every aspect of their psyche and daily routine to become more efficient laborers.
Chinatown at night is a very beautiful, colorful place. Keira notes the importance of geography to the lyrical content of the album- there are many US references (California, 14th Street, New York, Chinatown etc), which give context and meaning for listeners, especially Los Angelenos who love certain places.
The yin yang wheel turns.
Dani’s in Love
theroses: Why do you think so much music is about Love?
MR: Music is about Love because humans are, I don’t think it’s a great mystery.
The honesty, frankness, and passion of everything Marlon does is very appealing. He’s very straightforward, and at times very personally revelatory in his lyrical content, which gives him vulnerability as a writer and elicits empathy from listeners. Keira adds, “Thinking about form, their songs are quite simple (common chord progressions, strumming patterns, quiet opening that builds up). I find this to be true in both this album and their previous work.” She adds that this simplicity places greater focus on the lyrical content rather than on style. He doesn’t use games or fashion to cloak over the vapidity of musical statements- compared to an artist like St. Vincent, who crafts elaborate formal and stylistic smoke screens to cloud the fact there’s not a real statement happening behind the glittering screen. Dani's in Love is definitely a clear, bright sunbeam that breaks through the heavy & melancholic tone of some of the other surrounding tracks, really rupturing through darkness like a blossoming firework.
Dani, Muses & Fashion, Unconsciousness
Dani is an ethereal presence on this album, coloring the lyrics and setting a tone for many facets of the Gold Star cosmos. She strikes me as a beautiful gothic cowgirl. Marlon’s tone within the music world also has an aspect of model / cowboy, but rather than these roles striking me as fashion ‘choices’, the roles seem more as 'written', into the screenplay of the city, into their very DNA as poets and performers, etched as glimmering paths on a Jungian map, right there criss-crossing and looping around... alongside the Milky-Faced Dream Boy, the Tijuana Madonna, the Sensitive Bullfighter, the Glampire, the Bat Child, the Lost Boy, the Kind Man with the Clock... each person playing themselves on the stage of Los Angeles, where artistry and self-poeticization elevate life into performance. Poetry, performance, modeling, life, music, entertainment intertwine. I think of ‘fashion’ more as a consumer pasttime that’s not very socially conscious or environmentally conscious, whereas I think of this articulation of self through quotidian gestures- let’s call it charisma- as something a little different & quite a bit more magical. Like tapping into the self that’s beyond your self, coming to know your spiritual personality, formed of unseen aethers, and mirroring it so that it manifests in your daily reality.
theroses: What do you think about the idea of a rock star as poet - musician - model - entertainer, and which of these facets of the role do you most identify with?
MR: Poets are musicians, as much as models are entertainers and poets. Music can be poetry. We are all cut from the same cloth.
theroses: What do you think about fashion and charisma?
MR: Not too much, fashion and charisma should be effortless not contrived.
theroses: Are you interested in Carl Jung?
MR: Yeah absolutely, but I don’t profess to know too much about his work.
theroses: Which artists, filmmakers, fashion designers, photographers, or writers inspire you- or do they?
MR: James Baldwin, Nathaniel West, J.D. Salinger, Joan Didion, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen... There’s so much...
theroses: How do you place yourself within musical history?
MR: As a songwriter I try to just write and to create. It’s really up to the audience where I get “placed.” I feel like it’s bad luck to think about things like that, it’s probably counterproductive.
What is your favorite color, what is your favorite chakra, and which of the 4 elements (rock, air, water, fire) do you most identify with?
I can’t say I have a favorite color, they are all beautiful. I don’t know anything about chakras or elements honestly..
Why this album matters
In conclusion, the album is deeply critical of the current societal and economic model in the United States, and of the prefabricated standards of and awards for “success” that society offers. It offers a different kind of self-hood- an ideal of self-actualization through poeticization that gleams right at the corners of Marlon’s defiant grin, a radiance that bleeds through every track on the album. It embraces the traditions of American rock. (Keira added that some of the production quality, like the mic setup, has a 60's vibe, which is interesting when thinking about their influences and place within music at large). But even if contemporary rock music is arguably in continuance of the rock genre, in a way that’s like saying Shakespeare is derivative of the English language, or that Chuck Berry’s art is indebted to that of the guy who invented guitars. The typography on the album cover is on point: in your face, with no frills. Thank you Gold Star.